Saturday, January 28, 2017

You're Doing Everything Wrong: Procedural Drama Edition

I thought we'd end January on a pop culture note. What better way to mindlessly check out for a as long as it takes you to read this than to talk about procedural dramas? How many of you are settling in for a whole Saturday (or weekend) of watching Law & Order: SVU or NCIS reruns during a USA network marathon? You don't have to answer but always remember: I would never, ever judge you for that. Ever.

I was a huge procedural drama fan when I was younger (say 8th-11th grades, followed by right after college). Give me an episode of L.A. Law, the Mike Logan years of Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, or even old school Hill Street Blues and I will be a happy person. My early love of these shows came from the fact that in my early high school years I really wanted to be a criminologist. I thought that was a cool sounding job and I read everything I could about being one. I even got to interview an FBI criminologist who went to our church for a school project. Somewhere between developing my crush on Mike Logan and getting the high school theatre bug, I slowed down on my viewing and my career goal. Later on, when I was working as an admissions counselor at Loyola, I would realize that like every teenager who came to my table at a college fair asking about our forensic chemistry program because they wanted to be a "CSI," I really didn't have the heart for the science part of this world. I know I chose the right path.

Another quality of procedural dramas have that I admire is the structure of the show. Much like a Hallmark holiday movie, there's a certain formula to procedurals. Law & Order (the whole franchise except Conviction) is a perfect example of clear structure: the police detectives (Law) have approximately 22 minutes to track the clues, interview witnesses, and find a suspect, all while smirking a bit and talking unlike any police detective you might actually know. If we're lucky, a suspect will run so Logan has to chase him and we get a little extra drama. Then the district attorneys (Order) have another 22 minutes to criticize police work, question witnesses, deal with slimy (mostly) defense attorneys, and have perfect hair. I'm sold especially if it involves a young Chris Noth (pre-Mr. Big), Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston, and S. Epatha Merkerson.

If you move away from the highly structured universe of the Law & Order shows, procedural dramas are still structured in a way that most scripted television is not: bad guy/girl commits a crime, detectives/CSI/NCIS/FBI agents follow the clues, lawyers do lawyer-y things, and the case is solved. There can be completely shocking and awful and gruesome moments on these shows but even those moments fit within the very defined structure of the universe of whichever show you're watching. Key characters die (I'm looking at you, Lenny Briscoe), serial killers get away (the Miniature Killer on CSI is one of my favorite continuous plots), but there's nothing compared to many of the fantasy/sci-fi shows that are so popular now. No dragon swoops in and carries off Gil Grissom in any episode of CSI. No zombies chase the Criminal Minds agents through Mardi Gras while they track a killer. (Seriously, they tracked a killer in New Orleans once and it looked like it was Mardi Gras the entire episode and there was a New Orleans-y cop who really had more of a Cajun accent. I don't understand either.) Procedural dramas are completely grounded in reality regardless of the fact that a crime is solved (usually) in 44 minutes or less (an hour long tv show is actually only 44-45 minutes in length because of commercial breaks).

That's probably the other joy of a procedural drama: crime solving is super easy on these shows. We all know there is no way that any crime is going to be solved in 44 minutes or less UNLESS the criminal wrote a big "I did it" note for us to find. In theory, the episode is taking place over the course of a few days but it's always a little hard to tell since no one ever seems to go home and they all keep extra clothes in their lockers so how would you know the actual passage of time? On all of these shows, the very attractive cast finds the clues, uses really advanced technology and science, and occasionally they even have to do experiments to recreate conditions for things like decomposition or something else involving a fetal pig. It's almost always perfect; there's usually one episode a season where evidence is compromised and science is questioned but it always works out in the end. Grissom always figures something out to prove he's the best. I've never been able to figure out the wardrobe and styling on these shows; the women always look somewhere in the middle of casual Friday and business casual and the men are either completely suited up or look like they're heading to a club later. And everyone has perfect hair. Even when they're waist deep in a dumpster looking for clues, their hair is perfect and shiny.

I stopped watching procedural dramas in 2006 and it's all Tim Curry's fault. He started a two episode story arc on Criminal Minds at the end of the 2005 season. He played a serial killer who used a blackout to sneak into the homes of his victims and then kill them. Eventually, he would kidnap the daughter of one of the agents but it's in his first crimes that I completely could not deal with these shows anymore. He waited for his victims to do something like leave a window open a little bit or leave the front door open to go back to get something from the car to sneak into their home to kill them. He also hid in the shower in one part of the show. It was so simple: everyone closes their shower curtain when they leave the house. You wouldn't notice anything amiss because you closed the curtain. It creeped me out so much that I now leave the shower curtain open whenever I leave the house. This was the man who brought the most terrifying clown ever, Pennywise, to life. Now he's playing a serial killer who sneaks into someone's shower? I cannot do this anymore.

I didn't need procedural dramas. I had Gilmore Girls and RuPaul's Drag Race and Project Runway and Face/Off. Eventually I would start hate-watching Girls and Vinyl. Then Westworld would enter my life. And God bless Ryan Murphy and American Horror Story (except seasons 2 and 6). The only exception to this rule is NCIS reruns. My dad is a big fan so I tend to watch it with him when I'm over and I can't help but watch a marathon every now and then on USA. It's not the same level of creepy that the other shows fall into and who doesn't love Mark Harmon? I replaced procedurals with fast dialogue, pop culture references, and drag queens. If television watching is a game, I believe I'm winning.

Then I moved. Here's what happens when I move: I can't help myself with unpacking. I need to get as much done in the immediate 2-3 days after moving into a new place as I possibly can. I don't like boxes hanging around. I don't like not having my stuff where it belongs. I want to be settled in as quickly as possible. I used to listen to music while unpacking but with this move, for whatever reason, music wasn't helping with my unpacking. I didn't want to watch a new show in Netflix (of which I have many in my queue) and I've been slowly re-watching Gilmore Girls again but that's more of an after work "I need me time" kind of show. I happened to find a CSI marathon on the Esquire Network (yes, it's both a magazine and a tv network). The episodes were from the Grissom years (the only years that matter on this show) so I kept it on in the background as I unpacked my kitchen and my books and organized my closet. I remembered many of the episodes from when I originally watched the show and even some of the creepier ones didn't have the same effect on me now as they did when they originally aired. I didn't stop watching the mini-marathons on Esquire or WE Network (both show it during the week). Since moving into my new place, I come home from work and watch an episode or two while I make dinner and decompress from my day.

Then it dawned on me: I've been doing everything wrong when it comes to procedural dramas. The only way to watch them is to binge watch. On general principle, I don't binge watch television shows (Stranger Things and the Gilmore Girls revival being recent exceptions) because I like the idea of a show unfolding over time. That's the way I grew up watching tv shows since we didn't have DVRs or Netflix. I had to wait week after week to see what would happen next. Cliffhanger season finales were the best and worst thing to happen. Coming back to CSI and watching multiple episodes in one sitting has given me a new perspective on the procedural drama. I don't focus so much on the crimes occurring but the personalities and the interactions between the main cast. Sure, the crime they're investigating could be super gross (like the body soup in a bag in desert) or weird (the furry convention episode or the vampire/werewolf convention murder) or totally creepy (the Miniature Killer or the episode with the judge who might be planning to kill Grissom) or bizarre and a little funny (Lady Heather in the original few episodes she was in) but it all sort of blends together in one sitting.

I also know stuff about this show (like Sarah and Grissom are a thing or Warrick has a gambling problem that will eventually lead to his death) so I can watch for those plot lines in a way I didn't when I originally watched the show one episode at a time. Back then, it was about the grisly crime and the amped up science not so much about the characters. Now, I sit back and wait for a a joke about the case and some awkward interactions between at least two of the characters (because they're all so awkward) and I'm set. I count the number of times any of the women wear clothing that might be deemed inappropriate for the line of work they're in (mostly Catherine but it makes sense in the larger world of the show) and I wonder if poor Nick ever decided to get a dog because he always seemed so lonely. And the side characters? The police detectives and the lab techs; they're all so good. I still think there should be a Lady Heather/Gil Grissom spinoff show. I have no idea what it would be about but I'd watch it.

Thank you original CSI cast for your perfect hair, mildly inappropriate wardrobes, and awkward interactions. You've helped me see the error of my ways when it comes to procedural dramas. It's not about watching over time but watching in bulk. It's not really about the gruesome crime but the people solving said crime. Thank you for helping me to stop doing everything wrong.

Coming in February: Stuff I Love is coming back! This February, each weekend's post will focus on something I love in honor of the month of love.

Law & Order image
Catherine Willows
Tim Curry meme 
CSI cast

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